Of the handful of books on asylum seekers I've read, this one for me is undoubtedly the best. Frequently I find these books get caught up in a lot of complexity, which is only to be expected of course, seeing immigration is such a complex portfolio. Trawling through department rules and regulations, the immigration act, refugee tribunals and our international obligations tend to make tiresome reading for me. Excuse my shallowness, but its true.
As the title of the book says, this is mostly about individual stories. The stories depict three stages really: fleeing country of origin, seeking asylum, and rejection of asylum claims and repatriation (forced in some circumstances).
By going through all the detail of these human stories, and what they’ve had to deal with through our immigration system, David Corlett highlights much human suffering and departmental failure. The book is not written in an hysterical, hectoring style, but rather in a very calm and controlled manner. The author does not try to cover up some of the sins of the asylum seekers themselves or of some of their supporters.
For example, with the case of the Bakhtiyari family, Corlett shows how the family was used politically by certain left wing groups. Most notably, when Bob Ellis interviewed the Bakhtiyari boys. The two boys made a condition that they would speak to Ellis as long as the interview was not published. Unbelievably, Ellis went ahead and published the interview material, a most disgusting breach of trust. Here’s what Ellis wrote in the Canberra Times:
‘I am releasting this transcript of things said by the Baktiari boys against their wishes…because I believe moer harm will come to them and others if I do not.’
The chapter on the complex Bakhtiyari issue is excellent, going through all the details in a balanced way. In the end, the author says he can’t be sure either whether the family really was from Afghanistan, but is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. All of that aside, whether they were from Afghanistan or Pakistan, the utter cruelty of our immigration department boggles the mind. One wonders, why? To what end? And then there is the money, taxpayers money, enforcing all of this. Two to three million dollars on the Bakhtiyari family alone.
There are of course plenty of other stories of human misery, especially the description of one family that was sent back to Iraq. There are stories of people returned to torture and murder. This is coupled with the responses of Amanda Vanstone, basically saying its not our problem if murder happens in another country. Nice.
When I got to the end of the book I thought, my god, what a horrible and mean world for some people. And Australia is trying to push a lot of people back into that world. What would it cost Australia to be a bit more liberal in its attitude to asylum seekers? Nothing. If anything, we might make something out of it. Just think if the Bakhtiyari family had been allowed into the community from day one and allowed to work. I’m sure it would have been better all around. We could have had tax payers instead of a 3 million dollar bill.
One final note. I liked Colett’s treatment of the Asian tsunami at the end of the book, saying it was sentimental politics and that we could only sympathise with passive victims, with people who’d been killed, whereas active victims, trying to save themselves, we are hostile to.
Here is the author’s description of what a politics of common humanity should be, a theme he fleshes out a bit in the last chapter:
"Such a politics cannot be sentimental. It must be historically and politically engaged. It must take humanity as it is, in all its beauty and ugliness and all that lies inbetween. A politics of common humanity is not a feel-good politics that grows from a cross channel entertainment telecast or from a fund-raising cricket match at the MCG."
Read this moving book, written with great level headedness and common sense, and wonder: why the cruelty?